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Paris review: Le Chamarré

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Paris review: Le Chamarré

Moshulu | Jan 27, 2006 03:02 AM

This one-star establishment in the 7th gets a lot of buzz because the chefs, Jerome Bordreau and Antoine Heerah, add an exotic touch from the island of Mauritius to classical French food. The Gault Millau gives it an exalted 16. You’d never know it by looking at the place. From the outside, it looks like nothing at all, not even a restaurant. The blinds are never opened, but if they were, you would see, across the street, one of the great Parisian food meccas: Petrossian, the caviar place (actually, though the caviar is out of reach for mortals, they sell affordable salmon in its most perfect/ethereal form called “coupe du Tsar” ).

The Chamarré’s interior is on the dark side and quite elegant, but straight out of New York in the late nineteen fifties. The light fixtures, made from some kind of knobly-crinkly glass in several colors, are a period marvel. Given the prices, the clientele is well-heeled locals and visiting businessmen (this is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city). Suit and tie for the men, two-piece suits and light jewelry for the ladies. For some reason, the entrance is dominated by a hand-made model of a J-class racing yacht. Your reviewer, something of an expert on boats and sailboat racing, can tell that the model will never be displayed in a museum. More importantly, the place seems to have no smell, which arouses suspicion.

The menu is classic (foie gras, lievre a la royale, ris de veau, etc) but there are intriguing references to unfamiliar spices and interesting combinations of ingredients. There is a tasting dinner menu at 80 euros, and a set lunch menu at 40. On one visit, the former consisted of a very strong rock fish soup, octopus cooked two ways (chunks with a green(!) turmeric coating, and carpaccio-style tentacles), a fat shrimp rolled in spices, some fish I can’t remember, tender pieces of pork, and a dessert that I’ll get to in a moment. Each course was nicely presented, and carefully garnished with something interesting, like baby vegetables from Paris’ Vegetable King, Joel Thiébault. I particularly like the roasted shallot (not just any shallot: an echalotte grise de Champagne!) whose flesh was perfectly caramelized, but whose skin was as hard as a crab shell.

There is nothing at all wrong with the food; it is perfectly decent stuff, except for the expectation of something more. Island-spiced food should sing out, even dance, but these dishes just bumble along, afraid (like the patrons) to raise their voices above a whisper, content to add a very modest sparkle of fantasy to the regular humdrum Parisian fare. Even the colors are muted, unexciting, somehow washed out. But at the end of the meal, something finally occurred to arouse this disenchanted customer: a savarin (sort of a sponge cake) saturated with molasses, accompanied by a truly inspired ice cream of basmati rice and milk. Absolutely delicious! Must make this at home…

The wine list is very correct, but the prices way out of line, 4-5 times retail. Shamefully, there are no half-bottles at all! My choice at dinner turned out to be a real find: a “vin de table” (i.e. produced outside the legally-established appellation boundaries) from the marshy Sologne region. It was called “Racines” and was made by one Claude Courtois. Very nice wine, but no bargain at all at 55 euros.

When I had the lunch menu, it consisted of a kind of terrine (a cold “marbré”, actually) of rabbit and foie gras, held together by an aubergine paste. Very tasty but, as is so often the case in Paris, served too cold. Main course was seared rare tuna with a bouillabaisse-flavored foam (lots of foam at Le Chamarré, I’m afraid) and a dessert of peeled litchis with a passion fruit sauce and a scoop of coconut ice cream.

There is something odd, vaguely unfriendly about the service. Things got off to a good start at dinner when they brought our collie a bowl of water as soon as we sat down. But when I ordered the tasting menus, I was asked - twice - whether I was sure about my choice (translation: “You’re obviously Americans, do you realize that you’ve ordered octopus?”). I hate this kind of stuff. Throughout the meal, bad vibes were coming from the staff. Normally, I like to chit-chat with the waiters, hoping to pick up some interesting bits of information about the ingredients or preparation, but all I could get out of these stiffs were some grunts and shrugs.

The bill at dinner was 230 euros for two, giving a price/quality ratio in the poor to unacceptable range.

I wish I could recommend Le Chamarré, but I can’t. There is too much routine here, not enough originality. The fusion of tropical and traditional is a great idea, but it has to be done boldly or not at all. I have experienced this when it is done correctly (in places like London, Sydney, New York, San Francisco, Hong Kong) but here, the chefs have succumbed to the “fatigue du nord” – that sad miasma that keeps dragging French food down even as other parts of the world explore new possibilities and ideas. Frankly, there is something a bit dingy about La Chamarré, from the décor, to the food, to the service. The place needs a good shaking or maybe even a kick in the pants.

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